I guess that the use of color belts, (culminating in the black belt) has been used by karate dojos for nearly a hundred years. It’s apparently something that we adopted from the practices of judo halls, which were formulated in the late 1800’s. Depending upon the organization, the colors and the order in which these are earned, varies; although most every dojo starts with white, and ends up with brown and black belts. In our kyu (color belt) system, there are 10 ranks: white, two blues, two greens, two purples, and three browns. One would think that each rank in the hierarchy represents an equal step forward in time, skills gained, techniques learned, etc. As most karateka will tell you, this is far from true, and differs from rank to rank, from dojo to dojo, and from person to person.
In an average dojo, exams are given out every three months or about four times a year. Most folks aren’t talented enough or train often enough to go up a rank every three months. However, in general, if one is training consistently (say, three times a week), he/she might progress 2-3 ranks each year; and in fact, it might take a trainee about four to five years to attain a black belt. Sort of sounds like obtaining a college degree in about four to five years, or completing high school over a four year period, right? However, this is a deceiving statistic. High school is mandatory, and unless you’re held back a year or two or become a high school dropout, the vast majority of us complete the high school curriculum over a four year period. By comparison, of those who are actually accepted into a university, I’ve heard that only about 40% or less, ever complete their respective bachelor’s program. Similarly, only about 40% of those who are good enough to be accepted into the college of engineering or 60% of those appointed to one of the elite service academies, ever receive their degrees. Thinking a little more on this, what percentage of the general college population has ever been accepted to the engineering program? How many of us reading this note have ever been appointed to one of the military academies? The percentage of those who make is really much smaller than one would think. Here’s an example: my brother-in-law (also my middle-school classmate) was your “average” Air Force Academy appointee. He applied because he wanted to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering and become a fighter pilot. He was a highly motivated individual; salutatorian of his high school class with a nearly perfect grade-point average, scored very high SAT’s, was heavily involved in many school activities, and was also a wrestling champion. Yet, nearly all of his fellow incoming freshmen at the Academy carried similar credentials. Each class begins with between 1200-1400 freshman…after four challenging years, my brother-in-law’s class graduated some 800+ 2nd Lieutenants. So, while you can calculate how many of these outstanding cadets fell away, also remember that in turn, each of these young persons was carefully recruited from a small percentage of upper elite of high school seniors. They were appointed based upon their potential to succeed. It just goes to show that potential alone is not enough, having good intentions is not good enough, merely receiving an acceptance letter is not enough…one has to endeavor and persevere for years to turn potential into reality.
Alright, some of you are thinking, all of this high-minded talk about potential by Sensei is fine and dandy, but exactly how did he end up faring at the same time as his brother-in-law? Truthfully, not at all like I thought. While I had also achieved good grades, high SAT scores, and was active in school activities; I had absolutely no interest in the military. Instead, I fully intended to become a physician. I applied for, and won acceptance into a special honors Pre-Med program at UH, majoring in chemistry. Then, a funny thing happened to me along the way…As a college junior, I suddenly lost my desire to stay in school for ten more years heh heh. You see, I began dating my future wife and realized that I wanted to get married and begin a family. It was 1971, and the Vietnam war was still going strong. The Air Force ROTC program at UH was inviting interested college students who were entering their Junior year to take the qualifying examinations for AF officers. I took it on a lark, received a perfect score, and suddenly was barraged by calls from the local office. I thought it over, entered the program, and changed my major to Urban/Regional Planning. By 1975, I was a young AF officer, an environmental planner, married to my dear wife, and a brand new father. Watch out what you wish for, haha. So, although your path may change, keep focused, keep working, don’t give up, and you’ll eventually make to where ever your destiny leads you. Oh, and what about my wife’s brother?…he did, indeed, graduate from the AF Academy (top 10% of his graduating class), but he also did not reach his goal – becoming a fighter pilot. After graduation, the Air Force sent him for many more years of school and he became, instead…a physician (the irony!, haha). The Lord leads each of us to his/her destiny, but we have to do our part to get there.
Alright, where was I, before I started rambling? Oh yes, the attrition rate in karate is atrocious. Out of the fifty young college students (all were young men) that started with me at the UH Karate-Kai during the semester, there were less than a dozen left after a few months of hard training. By the end of the year, we had perhaps six of us left, and I believe that I am the only one from that particular group who made it to black belt several years later. I’ve talked with many of the other old-time black belts, and their experience was very similar to mine. Now, nearly four decades after we started, the few old friends I know who continue to practice/teach karate, persevere on behalf of thousands of others who tried the art, but have gone onto other things. All of this is just to remind each of us that attrition is natural, and our greatest weapons over it are faith and perseverance.
Okay, this is what I wanted to say about color belt rankings and the purple belt, in particular…If a student can survive six months of training, a blue belt is nearly guaranteed. In our ministry, where the frequency of training ranges from once to twice a week, it naturally takes longer to attain rank, especially as one goes higher up the chain. As a result, while many students make it to blue belt, getting to green in our ministry takes anywhere from one to two years. We actually lose quite a few students to attrition shortly after they make blue belt, and more of them at the green belt level. This is due to several reasons. First of all, there’s a saying that to have a chance of embedding something that takes discipline into your life (to make it a habit), you should do it every day for at least six weeks. By the same token, to instill something like karate into your life, with a once or twice a week frequency may take a couple of years. Small wonder that many begin to fade at the two year point (you see this in colleges too)…which are the blue and green belts. Another reason is that up through the green belt level, we continue to work on basics, basics, basics, and the double/triple combinations of the intermediate level, increasing our expectations of the students. Also at the two year point, students may begin to feel that they’ve achieved a basic understanding of karate and realizing that it gets harder from thereon, lose motivation to “kick it up a notch”.
At about the two year period, the green belt is in a very critical point of his/her training. If they can make it past this natural hill or test of their tenacity, they have the chance to make it to the next level of competency, and the purple belt. If not, they may eventually fade away. The reason for hope, is that a very amazing thing often happens at the 2-3 year point: the student who feels as if he/she has been at an impasse for such a long time, begins to make some amazing improvements in various parts of their performance. This phenomenon is powered by things that have happened in their body: strengthening muscles, greater flexibility in joints/tendons/ligaments, improved balance, etc. A small change in flexibility/balance in one part of the body (e.g.; the ankle, the knee, the hip, the shoulder, etc) may have a tremendous positive effect on many other areas of the body and many techniques. These minute improvements in the body are often accompanied by similar positive changes in their minds, attitudes, and understanding of just what they’re doing there in training. Therefore, I’m very impressed when one of our members makes it to the purple belt (in our ministry, this may be after 3-4 years), as it represents a huge step forward up a steepening hill. It is at this point, that we invite them into the second class where we introduce an entirely new syllabus of the Shotokan system; jyu-kumite kihon and concepts, more emphasis on maai, snapping techniques, shifting and speed drills, along with the higher katas and applications. Those who make it to purple have a increasingly good chance of being able to hang in there to the brown belt level. Therefore, reaching the purple belt is very significant, as by now, much of the karate spirit and way of movement have been imbedded into them in a way that they will carry with them throughout their lives, as an added benefit. The next major transformation doesn’t really happen until the dan (black belt) level.